At least 20 people have been killed in attacks by unidentified gunmen on several villages in western Niger, according to a local official.
Ibrahim Tidjani Katchella, governor of the Tillaberi region, told national radio on Sunday that the attacks were carried out by assailants on motorcycles who “pillaged shops” before heading north. He gave no further details.
One local source quoted by AFP news agency identified the villages as Gadabo, Zibane Koira-Zeno and Zibane-Tegui.
These are all administered by Anzourou, a commune some 50km (30 miles) from Tillaberi city, near the tri-border region of Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali where fighters linked to the al-Qaeda and ISIL (ISIS) armed groups have strengthened their foothold, making swaths of the arid Sahel area ungovernable.
The security situation in the region has rapidly deteriorated in recent years despite the presence of a growing number of military forces, including the French-led Operation Barkhane, United Nations troops and the G5 Sahel force,
Last January, Niger authorities restricted motorcycle traffic in a bid to crack down on fighters operating in the region and closed down a number of food markets they said were “supplying terrorists with fuel and cereals”, according to the governor.
The government recently extended a state of emergency in the region first brought in three years ago.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned last week that hardline armed groups in the Sahel are exploiting the coronavirus pandemic to step up attacks and for propaganda purposes, according to documents seen by AFP.
The UN chief urged better coordination among the forces fighting an array of armed groups.
“Terrorist groups are taking advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to intensify their attacks and to challenge state authority throughout the sub-region,” said Guterres, citing the area straddling Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso as a major concern.